INDIAN WELLS, California (Reuters) - Fourteen years after leaving the Indian Wells Tennis Garden in shocked disbelief after being heckled by the fans, Serena Williams soaked up their adulation on her return to the venue on Friday.
The American world number one, who was booed by the crowd as she beat Kim Clijsters in the 2001 final to win her second title at the California desert resort, felt overwhelmed after receiving a standing ovation at the start of the match.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” said an emotional Williams, who struggled to find her rhythm against a highly unorthodox opponent before battling past Romania’s Monica Niculescu 7-5 7-5 in the second round of the BNP Paribas Open.
”In the last couple of moments leading up to it, I was focused on warming up for the match and I wasn’t really prepared for that. I was overwhelmed by it.
“It was such a warm feeling. It made me feel incredibly well. And receiving the love from the crowd here, it really meant a lot to me.”
During the 2001 final at Indian Wells, Williams was repeatedly booed by the crowd in apparent response to Serena’s sister Venus having withdrawn from their semi-final that year just minutes before the match, citing injury.
Her father, Richard Williams, alleged he had heard racist taunts.
Fast forward 14 years and Williams was greeted with huge cheers while walking out on to the stadium court, prompting her to remove the headphones she was wearing and raise her right arm skywards to acknowledge the crowd.
One fan yelled out “We love you Serena” during the coin toss and she received repeated calls of “Come on Serena” throughout a topsy-turvy match that lasted a little more than two hours.
“I just felt so good to be out there,” said the world number one, who clinched her 19th grand slam singles crown with a 6-3 7-6(5) victory over Russian Maria Sharapova in the Australian Open final in January.
”I felt like I made the right decision (to come back) and I knew I wanted to do it. I knew I really wanted to do it. But up until that moment I didn’t really know if it was the right thing for me to do. That’s when I felt it was the right thing.
“I don’t feel like I have to actually hold the trophy at the end of this. I feel like I‘m already holding up a trophy. I have never felt that way before. I feel like just being here is a huge win. Not only for me, but for so many people.”
Asked to assess where Friday’s experience ranked among her multiple accomplishments on the tennis court, Williams replied: “It definitely feels like one of the biggest moments and the proudest moments of my career.”
Editing by John O'Brien